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Recognize and Overcome the 6 Most Destructive Communication Patterns
By Ben Benjamin, Amy Yeager, Anita Simon
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2012Ben Benjamin, Amy Yeager, and Anita Simon
All rights reserved.
Can This Conversation Be Saved?
Communication breakdowns are bad news for our lives and work. At best, they're a source of irritation and frustration. At worst, they can threaten our jobs, families, and friendships—and in some cases, even our health. Research suggests that failed communication is one of the leading causes of preventable medical errors.
The Surprising Common Factor in All Communication Breakdowns
How can we go about improving our conversations? First we need to get clear about exactly what's going wrong. We can't solve a problem if we don't know what's causing it. However, when it comes to communication problems, the cause is often tricky to spot. Consider the following conversation between a physician (Dr. M) and his patient's daughter (Sarah). As you read it, see if you can figure out what's causing the trouble between them:
Sarah began by saying, "It's so upsetting to see my father in this condition. I know this is not how he'd want to spend the last days of his life."
"I'm very sorry," replied Dr. M, emotionless.
"I think it's finally time to take him off the respirator."
"I can see how you'd feel that way now," said Dr. M, "but this new medication may start to improve his quality of life."
"At this point, that's just not enough. He's never going to get to the point where life is worth living again."
"Wouldn't it be better to wait and be certain? I'm sure you want to explore all the options."
"We've waited so long already," said Sarah, whining now, "and nothing has helped!"
Still very calm, Dr. M replied, "The morphine has helped to make him more comfortable, and his breathing seems a little easier today."
"Look," said Sarah, exasperated, "I just can't talk to you about this anymore!"
What's going on here? What made that conversation so difficult? When we present this dialogue in our training sessions, people usually come up with two different types of explanations: blaming the people and blaming the issue. In fact, these are the most common reasons people give for any type of communication failure. Unfortunately, neither explanation is particularly useful.
Explanation 1: Blaming the People
If you blamed the problem on Dr. M or on Sarah, you're using the people explanation. From this point of view, communications fail because of psychological factors, such as attitudes, emotions, intentions, motivations, or personality traits. In the hospital case, we might decide there's something wrong with Dr. M (he's cold and insensitive, and doesn't care about Sarah's concerns), with Sarah (she's too emotional or too pessimistic), or with both of them (they're both too rigid and set in their views).
The psychological perspective has a strong intuitive appeal. It may seem like common sense—of course people's bad attitudes, hidden agendas, and raging emotions ruin conversations; you can probably think of a few examples off the top of your head. However, this type of thinking also leaves us in a bind, with no good way to solve our problems.
Suppose you decide that the real trouble with your communication is someone else's defensiveness or overemotional reaction. That's not something you have the power to control. In fact, if you try to control it and force the person to change, you're likely to make things worse. If you don't believe us, ask anybody who's tried to resolve an argument by saying things like, "Stop being so defensive," "Calm down," or "You need to relax." (Imagine what would have happened if Dr. M told Sarah to be more rational, or if she told him to show some feeling.) Moreover, even if it were possible to make someone change—perhaps by convincing them to get coaching or go into therapy—that's a long-term process. It's not an efficient strategy for making your conversations work better right now.
Sometimes it may seem as though the only solution is to get the difficult person out of your life—quit your job, fire your employee, seek a divorce, and so on. Even if you haven't gone through this type of thought process yourself, you likely know people who have. You probably know more than one person who's acted on that reasoning, only to end up having the very same conflicts a few months later in their new job or new relationship. And of course, it's often not possible to exclude someone from your life. In our example, so long as Dr. M is caring for Sarah's father, they have no choice but to talk to one another.
The Usual Suspects
When a conversation fails, it's easy to blame:
The people. Difficult personalities, motivations, or emotional states
The topics. Touchy issues and irreconcilable differences
Explanation 2: Blaming the Topics
If you don't blame a communication breakdown on the people, you might be tempted to blame it on the topics being discussed. Perhaps some topics are so contentious or emotionally charged that a certain amount of frustration—or even bitter fighting—is simply inevitable. From this perspective, nobody is to blame because no better result was possible. The conversation was doomed from the outset.
Sarah's conversation with Dr. M, evaluating whether or not her father's life is worth living, certainly falls into the category of highly charged topics. The question of taking a person off life support can stir up a lot of controversy and moral outrage, even when the person involved is a stranger. It's easy to see how this contentious issue could be a big part of the problem.
Unfortunately, that explanation gets us no closer to finding a solution than the people-blaming approach. When you identify the subject matter as the source of your trouble, you're basically admitting defeat. There may be some difficult conversations you can simply avoid. For instance, you could decide not to talk about religion when you're around a particular colleague, or to avoid political debates with your parents. But much of the time, avoidance is not an option. Whenever you have a real problem you need to resolve—your employee is making costly mistakes, your department is facing tough layoff decisions, your spouse is threatening to leave you, one of your kids has started using drugs, or your dying father is suffering in the hospital—sidestepping the issue won't make it go away.
Explanation 3: The Real Reason Why Conversations Fail
Focusing on who's talking or what they're talking about doesn't just leave us without solutions. It also distracts us from the true cause of communication problems: how people are talking to one another. We can understand why any conversation succeeds or fails just by listening for the particular combinations of words and voice tones that are being used—the communication behaviors.
The Hidden Culprit
All communication breakdowns can be explained in terms of one common factor:
Behavior. The specific combinations of words and voice tones people are using
Whatever message you're trying to get across, the communication behaviors you use will have a strong impact on the way your message gets received. You can think of communication behaviors as the packages that carry our ideas out into the world. Often we're so focused on the content of what we're saying that we're completely unaware of the package we're sending it in. We fail to notice that our brilliant idea is wrapped up in the conversational equivalent of a stink bomb or a sign that says "kick me"—making it highly unlikely that our message
Excerpted from CONVERSATION TRANSFORMATION by Ben Benjamin. Copyright © 2012 by Ben Benjamin, Amy Yeager, and Anita Simon. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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